Everyone on board: Diversity matters

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 120 | Autumn Term 1 2021

Good governance requires diversity; it’s one of the bedrocks of good decision-making says National Governance Association (NGA) Chief Executive Emma Knights.

A governing board’s volunteers should share a common set of values and a vision for the school or trust, but bring different skills, knowledge, experience, backgrounds and perspectives to the table. Boards approaching discussions through a limited lens risk groupthink, resulting in decisions that are less likely to be in the best interests of pupils.

The people participating in decision-making and oversight need to understand the communities served by the school, college or trust. Having some volunteers with experiences or an identity in common with pupils, parents and the wider community has the added advantage of not only being more connected to local needs, but also helping to build confidence and trust with those all-important stakeholders. Providing role models for pupils should not be overlooked.

This is not the NGA going out on a limb; this thinking is well-established in the world of governance. In June, NGA published a report on increasing participation in school and trust governance (https://tinyurl.com/475kb58v) in which we pulled together all the literature with our own quantitative evidence and the results of focus groups of both Black and Asian volunteers and younger volunteers.

What is the current situation?

Volunteer recruitment strategies don’t reach all parts of our society. In fact, we’ve known for over 20 years that there are few Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) governors in schools. Shockingly in those two decades, while our country and the communities that schools serve have become more diverse, NGA’s Annual Governance Survey confirms that we’ve made little progress in the overall numbers of BAME people on governing boards; although newer governors are showing a different profile, it’s not anywhere like enough (see www.nga.org.uk/increasing-participation).

The other group most under-represented on boards are younger people, who we define as being under 40 years-old, so we’re advocating that the governance community needs to be most proactive in seeking out and welcoming younger people as well as people from BAME backgrounds.

How can we increase participation?

There are two crucial elements to increasing participation and perspectives in school and trust governance: recruitment and then retention of volunteers. This isn’t a tick-box exercise; having a seat at the table is only the first part of the equation. There’s little point in recruiting a board member only for them to sit quietly or have no attention paid to their contributions.

To achieve change, senior leaders need to embrace the case for diverse boards, not just the boards themselves. Turn the tables: ask questions of your chair and the full board about what is being done to assess and improve diversity. Our focus group participants made it clear how influential it was when the headteacher or other executive leaders encouraged and valued their input. Leaders shouldn’t underestimate how daunting it can be coming from outside the education sector to govern, especially for those who may not look like a traditional governor. Support and engagement from headteachers helped build the confidence of new volunteers.

Here’s a seven-point plan to achieving a more diverse board:

1. Prioritise and discuss diversity: do not be frightened

This summer, NGA transformed its board skills audit to a skills and diversity audit, so one analysis exercise (administered by the board’s governance professional) should identify the gaps of knowledge and background. It should inform the board’s professional development and recruitment priorities.

2. Widen recruitment

Simply not knowing that opportunities are available is the main barrier to achieving more diverse candidates for boards. Review recruitment processes and use the widest possible range of channels, including some targeted at certain communities. NGA’s guidance contains lots of practical ways to do this; see www.nga.org.uk/RPATT

Be clear about who you want to recruit and emphasise the benefits and rewards to all parties. There are three free recruitment services: Inspiring Governance (www.inspiringgovernance.org); Governors for Schools (www.governorsforschools.org.uk); and for trust boards, Academy Ambassadors (www.academyambassadors.org).

3. Choose difference, not fit, in appointments

The appointment process should have evolved several years ago from a cosy chat. This is an important role which requires a professional appointment process, so inviting someone from another board to sit on your interview panel is one way to counter doing what you have always done with the same result.

4. Welcome and induction

High-quality induction for all governors and trustees is absolutely crucial in ensuring an effective board of governance. NGA has guidance on what good induction looks like (www.nga.org.uk/induction), but there is other information needed from the school, college or trust, along with meetings to get to know key people. Assigning each new volunteer a buddy can make real difference.

5. Choose difference, not comfort, in ways of working

A diverse board includes some new members and some more experienced. Consider the dynamics in board meetings, its culture and its way of doing business. Is everyone contributing and being listened to? Invite challenge and be prepared to review all aspects such as timings of meeting. Don’t forget to offer expenses.

6. Listen, review, and value

Encourage chairs or vice chairs to meet with each board member individually once a year and discuss their contribution – past and future. An honest and open conversation about how the new – or seasoned – volunteer is finding the board and its effectiveness pays dividends. They also inform succession planning for board leadership. Longer serving volunteers on your board can be encouraged to consider moving to a board of a different school/ trust at the end of their term of office – this is a great way of sharing practice and knowledge.

7. Make governance visible

Senior leaders should understand the importance of the governing board but, to the outside world, the role is fraught with myths and obscurity. People won’t rush to join something that’s uncelebrated and largely hidden from view and outside the community. Governors and trustees could start the new school year by explaining their role to pupils at assemblies and to parents in newsletters. See more at www.nga.org.uk/visiblegovernance

There is an urgent need to be proactive, and the good news from NGA’s report is that being proactive does bring change. This change needs to become business as usual, reinforced by those in positions of power and influence in the sector. We have called for the DfE to fund a recruitment campaign for volunteers.

Evelyn Forde, Headteacher and Chair of ASCL’s BAME Leaders’ Network, joined NGA to launch our report and made the following important points: “I am frustrated by the lack of diverse leadership in schools in senior leadership roles… and when you’ve got boards [that aren’t diverse] the chances of them appointing somebody who doesn’t look like them are low… We also need diversity so that the young people that we serve as school leaders can see people that look like them.”

NGA is pleased to be working with ASCL on these issues and, later this academic year, together, we intend to supplement NGA’s training on diversity, equality and inclusion with a joint offer.

Emma Knights OBE
Chief Executive of the National Governance Association
@NGAEmmaK

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